choice

The puzzle of “skillful” and “unskillful” as ethical terms

Man practicing piano in a darkened room, with the piano illuminated by a desk lamp.

One of the things that struck me as odd when I first encountered the Buddha’s teachings was the terms he used when he discussed living ethically or morally: “skillful” (kusala) and “unskillful” (akusala).

Maybe these terms are new to you. Or maybe they’re so familiar that you’ve stopped thinking about them. Either way, they are an unusual way to talk about morality.

The most common terms for describing ethical actions are good and bad, right and wrong, and good and evil. These are the terms most of us grew up hearing.

It’s not that the Buddha never used that kind language. Particularly when he was composing poetry, or when he was speaking to uneducated people, he’d use the word puñña, which means merit or “good,” and pāpa, which means bad or evil.

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But when he was talking technically, to serious Dharma practitioners — monks, nuns, and those householders who were dedicated disciples — he used these words “skillful” and “unskillful.”

No one can know for sure why Buddha chose those terms, but what might he have had in mind?

What is Skill?

So let’s think about what skill is. What does it mean to do something in a skilled way?

My understanding is that if you have skill you’re able to achieve something challenging that you set out to do. That’s the definition of being skilled.

So a skilled carpenter has the idea they’re going to make, say, a beautiful coffee table. And lo and behold, a beautiful coffee table appears. They have the skill to be able to create it. A skilled potter, wants to make a particular kind of pot. And because they’ve done a lot of practice, because they know what they’re doing, they’re able to make that kind of pot. They have the skill to accomplish what they set out to do. A person who lacks skill cannot do that. So that’s what it means to be skilled, or unskilled.

Skillful and Unskillful As Ethical Terms

Now, the Buddha used these terms, skilled and unskilled, in an ethical sense.

What does it mean to have skill in an ethical sense? Well, ethics is a part of practice. The Buddha talked about “the threefold training” which comprised ethics, meditation, and wisdom. These are three things we train in. Training itself is about developing skill, so there’s a consistent theme here.

What are we training for when we do spiritual practice? What is the point of practice? The point of practice is to have better lives, and to help other people to have that experience as well. It’s to liberate ourselves from suffering. It’s to become happier, more content, more fulfilled, and to have more of a sense of meaning in our lives.

Ethics Is Not About Being Good

It might sound deeply contradictory to say that ethics is not about being good, but I think that’s a faith claim to make about ethics in Buddhism. The Buddha didn’t tell us to abandon greed, hatred, and delusion because they are evil, but because they cause suffering. He said that if they didn’t cause suffering, then he wouldn’t tell us to abandon them:

If giving up the unskillful led to harm and suffering, I would not say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ But giving up the unskillful leads to welfare and happiness, so I say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ (AN 2.19)

Skillful and Unskillful Qualities and Actions

Just as a carpenter shows skill when they intend to create a beautiful piece of furniture and are successful, so we’re ethically skillful when we have the aim of living in ways that free us from suffering and that help others be free from suffering, and are successful in accomplishing that aim.

We’re unskillful when we aim to be free from suffering but end up creating pain and confusion.

The thoughts, words, and actions that free us from suffering are skillful. Those that do the opposite are unskillful.

When the Buddha talked about ethics he pointed out that there were two trends in the mind. (See MN 19) The mind can act based on selfish craving, hatred, or a lack of understanding. And those things will lead to suffering. He called these “unskillful.”

The other trend is that the mind acts with mindfulness and exhibits qualities such as patience, courage, kindness, empathy, compassion, appreciation, and so on. These are things that free us from suffering and bring peace and happiness. He called these ethical qualities “skillful.”

So we’re acting skillfully when we’re exercising skillful qualities — that is, qualities that help us move closer to the goal of freeing ourselves from suffering. We’re acting unskillfully when we’re in the grip of unskillful states of mind that create suffering.

So this is what I think the Buddha perhaps had in mind when he was using these terms — skillful and unskillful — which seem, at first glance quite unusual.

Why This Matters

It’s an interesting shift of perspective to think about ethics in terms of skill. It’s quite different from how we might have been raised to see things. We may have been raised to see things in terms of good and bad.
We get caught up in the idea of people themselves being good and bad. But it’s only actions that can be skillful or unskillful. You can’t talk about an unskillful person because no person is entirely skillful or unskillful.

Lots of people think of themselves as being good or bad. They want to present themselves to themselves as being good, which I’ve described elsewhere as a disastrous move. And of course lots of people become convinced that they are bad, or unworthy, and usually they’re sadly mistaken. You may be one of those people, or you probably know some of them. And your impression of them is probably that they are lovely people with many fine qualities. They’re probably kind and thoughtful, and you probably benefit from being with them.

We’re all a mixture of skillful and unskillful qualities. No one is all one or all the other. And spiritual training — or at least a lot of spiritual training — is about, on the one hand, exercising and strengthening the skillful, and on the other hand recognizing and letting go of the unskillful.

Life Is Practice

And this is for me the most important implication of the Buddha’s language of ethics as a skill. Skills are to be practiced and refined. Life — our ordinary everyday actions, and even our thoughts — is where we train. Our mistakes — the times we make ourselves or others suffer — is how we learn.

We can include in our lives constant reflections: did my actions lead to suffering? How could I do this differently in the future? Is what I’m doing or saying now leading to suffering? How can I change what I’m doing? Is this thing I intend to do or say or think likely, based on my past experience, to create unnecessary suffering? How might I act differently? (See MN 61)

Our lives are lessons to be learned. As long as we keep learning from our ethical mistakes, those mistakes are useful ones, because they bring us closer to our goal of living with peace, joy, and meaning.

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Buddhism, free will, and non-self

Woman standing in front of two doors, one red, one blue, implying a choice.

The concept of “free will” doesn’t sit very easily with Buddhism. As far as I’m aware, it’s considered an important idea because God rewards and punishes us depending on whether we choose good or evil, and in such a belief system it’s necessary that we be considered capable of choosing freely.

Actually, the concept of free will doesn’t sit very well with some aspects of Christianity. Think about it: if God is omniscient, he therefore knows every choice you will make in your life, and so every choice you make is predetermined, and so you have no free will. An omniscient God therefore rewards or punishes you based on something you have no choice about.

There’s no creator God in Buddhism, but because our culture has been steeped in Christianity for centuries, the question of whether there is free will often comes up, presenting itself as a pressing dilemma that we need to urgently solve.

First there’s the question of whether our will is actually free. And second, there’s the question of how there can be free will if there is no self to make choices.

The Buddha Often Taught In Terms of Contrasting Options

Buddhist practice rests on the notion that we can make choices. This seems to be in the same ball park as the concept of free will. The very first chapter of the Dhammapada is titled “The Pairs,” and it presents us with alternative choices. The first two verses illustrate this very clearly:

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

The point here is that there are choices, and our choices matter. The Buddha doesn’t explicitly say here that we have a choice, or that there’s such a thing as free will, but he is implying that there are choices to be made.

The Buddha Explained In Detail How Choice Happens

In other teachings, for example in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta,  the Buddha expands on how choice happens:

Mendicants, before my awakening—when I was still unawakened but intent on awakening—I thought: ‘Why don’t I meditate by continually dividing my thoughts into two classes?’ So I assigned sensual, malicious, and cruel thoughts to one class. And I assigned thoughts of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness to the second class.

Then, as I meditated—diligent, keen, and resolute—a sensual thought arose. I understood: ‘This sensual thought has arisen in me. It leads to hurting myself, hurting others, and hurting both. It blocks wisdom, it’s on the side of anguish, and it doesn’t lead to extinguishment.’ When I reflected that it leads to hurting myself, it went away. When I reflected that it leads to hurting others, it went away. When I reflected that it leads to hurting both, it went away. When I reflected that it blocks wisdom, it’s on the side of anguish, and it doesn’t lead to extinguishment, it went away. So I gave up, got rid of, and eliminated any sensual thoughts that arose.

The Buddha is clearly describing a process of making choices here. He makes a decision to categorize his thoughts, apparently on some kind of hunch that had arisen. As he notices the untoward effects of “thinking imbued with sensuality,” etc., he abandons those forms of thought.

Choice Is Karma

This choice arises from cetana, which is “will” or “intention.” And this cetana, the Buddha said, is “karma.”

Intention, I tell you, is kamma.

Karma is choice. Specifically, it’s the choice that shapes our character, for better or worse.

He Pointed Out That Our Choices Are Limited

But he also saw a limit to our ability to make choices in any given situation. For example, he pointed out:

Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’

We’ll come back to “consciousness is not self.”

In the meantime, let’s just acknowledge that you can’t just decide what the nature of your consciousness will be. You can’t decide to be happy, for example. Well, you can, but it probably won’t change anything! You don’t have control over whether your body ages. You can’t make pain or illness go away by force of will.

If we have free will (the ability to make choices) then clearly there are limits in the choices it can make.

Choices Are Limited By the Preceding Conditions

Change comes about, the Buddha teaches, based upon the nature of the preceding conditions. For example, You can decide to grow crops, but you can’t make the seeds grow by force of will.

You can however plant seeds and water them, providing the requisite conditions:

There is the case where a farming householder quickly gets his field well-plowed and well-harrowed. Having quickly gotten his field well-plowed and well-harrowed, he quickly plants the seed. Having quickly planted the seed, he quickly lets in the water and then lets it out.

These are the three urgent duties of a farming householder. Now, that farming householder does not have the power or might [to say:] ‘May my crops spring up today, may the grains appear tomorrow, and may they ripen the next day.’ But when the time has come, the farming householder’s crops spring up, the grains appear, and they ripen.

This Principle Is Called Conditionality (Paṭicca Samuppāda)

In making choices, we’re working within a system of conditionality (paṭicca samuppāda). Certain things lead to certain other things in a relatively predictable way. We make choices only within the realm of what is possible.

What’s true for the cultivation of crops is true for for the cultivation of the mind as well:

In the same way, there are these three urgent duties of a monk. Which three? The undertaking of heightened virtue, the undertaking of heightened mind, the undertaking of heightened discernment. These are the three urgent duties of a monk. Now, that monk does not have the power or might [to say:] ‘May my mind be released from fermentations through lack of clinging today or tomorrow or the next day.’ But when the time has come, his mind is released from fermentations through lack of clinging.

Thus, monks, you should train yourselves: ‘Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened virtue. Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened mind. Strong will be our desire for the undertaking of heightened discernment.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.

If you want insight (heightened discernment) to arise, you have first to cultivate meditative states (heightened mind). If you want to cultivate meditative states, you have to practice ethics (heightened virtue). These are the laws of “mental agriculture” within which we operate. And you can’t just decide “I’m going to be free from clinging.” You can only choose from what’s possible, and that’s not possible.

How Does Choice Happen Within Conditionality?

The mind has the ability to make predictions about the future. This is crucial in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta passage. The Buddha recalls that certain mental states have led to suffering for self and others. He notices that certain other mental states have led to freedom from suffering for self and others. This has been true in the past.

And that becomes the basis of predictions for the future: this mental state that has arisen will cause suffering. And that prediction becomes the basis of choice: “Well, then, since I don’t want to suffer or to make others suffer, I should drop this way of thinking and choose another way of thinking. Why don’t I choose to think in a way that has been shown, through experience, to lessen my own and others’ suffering?”

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To think this way is to be aware of the principles of conditionality.

Our choices aren’t entirely free. We could decide not to do something that we know will make us suffer (e.g. binge eat) and yet feel compelled to do it. The decision to act in a way we don’t want forces itself upon us. We find that we don’t have the resources to resist it. We know that the action will cause suffering, but the conditions aren’t right for us to make any other choice in that moment.

What Is Freedom?

If you’re talking about free will, you’re talking about freedom. Free will means we’re free to do whatever we want. It’s the freedom to. I’ve shown that the Buddha pointed out that we can’t simply do whatever we want. That’s just not how the world works. It’s not how conditionality works. There are always limits to what we can choose. Will is never entirely free, because it can only interact with existing conditions, and those conditions limit what can happen next.

The Buddha’s conception of freedom was not freedom to, but freedom from. The Buddha’s concern was always about how we free ourselves from suffering. If someone had confronted him with the notion of freedom being the freedom to he’d probably have reminded this person that the purpose of spiritual practice is to become free from suffering.

His teaching was always about how to become free from suffering, and the method for doing this was to work within the bounds of what conditionality allows, making choices that lead to greater happiness — or, if you like, freedom from suffering. We become free of suffering by becoming free of the causes of suffering, which are selfish craving, ill will, and delusion. And we become free of those things by noticing them arising in the mind, and choosing not to exercise them, but to exercise their opposites. That’s what he’s saying in the Dvedhavitakka Sutta.

The Buddha doesn’t try to prove that choice happens, but simply takes it as a given. It’s our experience that choosing takes place. We can observe choices happening.

Wiggle Room Within Conditionality

I’ve said that we could decide not to do something that we know will cause us suffering (e.g. binge eating) and yet feel compelled to do it. Conversely, we could decide to do something wholesome (like meditate) and find that we can’t bring ourselves to do it for some reason.

At times we don’t have very much freedom, because the forces of selfish craving, ill will, and delusion are strong. But there’s always at least some wiggle room. The thought “This isn’t a good thing to do; maybe I shouldn’t do it” might be weak today, but it can get stronger over time, and eventually it might have enough strength to change how you act. So keep feeding that thought. It’s a wise thought.

There does always seem to be some wiggle-room for choice arising within the chain of conditions. Even if it doesn’t change the choices we make now, it might make a difference in the future. Who we are changes as we lessen the influence of selfish desire, ill will, and delusion, and as their opposites become stronger. In making wise choices, we’re becoming freer from suffering. That’s the important thing.

There Is No Self To Have Free Will

But what of the notion of anatta, or not-self? This was already referred to in one of the quotes above, and I promised I’d come back to it.

Consciousness (and the other skandhas — parts of our being) are “not oneself” (anatta) because one can’t control them, any more than we can choose to make crops suddenly appear or make an illness vanish, or decide to be happy for the rest of our lives.

Anatta, or not-self, simply means that the kind of self we think we have don’t actually exist. We think we have a self that is permanent, separate, unified, and capable of making choices consciously. We don’t have a self that works in that way. What we are is ever-changing, entangled with the world around us, and fragmented — and the choices that take place within whatever-we-are arise outside of consciousness. They arise before your conscious awareness registers them. Conscious awareness, in fact, doesn’t even make choices, as I discuss in Understanding Non-Self: The boys in the basement, the empty room, and the plagiarist.

In the Dvedhavitakka quote above, the Buddha says, The thought occurred to me: ‘Why don’t I keep dividing my thinking into two sorts?’

“The thought occurred to me” indicates that this thought wasn’t the result of conscious decision-making. It was a hunch. It just arose. This is in fact true of all thoughts. Thoughts just appear to conscious awareness. Conscious awareness doesn’t create them. The fact that it seems that it does is a delusion. Thoughts occur (the Pāli is literally something like “it was to me thus“). You can watch this happening, and realize, as Thoreau did, that nothing is as unfamiliar and startling to us as our own thoughts. If we observe thoughts appearing, we can indeed be surprised by them; we have no idea what our thoughts will be until they appear. We have little or no awareness of how they are made.

Who we are — our “self” — is not unified. One part of the brain gives rise to a thought. As that thought arises, it percolates to the various parts of our consciousness and has an effect. You (your brain, your mind) is not a unified entity, but a community. The community evolves and changes as wiser parts of us recognize that this emotion and the actions arising from it will lead to suffering, while that emotion and the actions arising from it will free us from suffering. It takes time, because this is a long, slow process of education.

Each of us is an evolving community, not a unity. It’s not the “Self” that educates the community. It’s just the wiser parts of the community (those that can draw the dots between present actions and future outcomes) that do the educating.

Ignore Free Will

In short, free will is an important concept  in Christianity because if our basic model is that God rewards or punishes us for our actions, we have to be free to choose. (Although free will also seems to be incompatible with the concept of an omniscient deity.)

But the concept of free will doesn’t fit with the observable facts of the world. Choices aren’t free. We’re not free to do whatever we want, because what happens next is constrained by past conditions. Being able to be free to do what we want is not relevant to the project of freeing ourselves from suffering.

There is no need for the concept of free will in Buddhism. It’s not relevant. It’s not even a real phenomenon, being based on a false view of choice (prior conditions mean we can’t always choose to do the right thing). Because it’s an illusory concept, we don’t need to reconcile Buddhism with it. In fact we should ignore the concept of free will except to critique it.

Instead we should focus on what’s relevant from the point of view of becoming free from Suffering. Choosing happens. By choosing wisely, the parts of us that have a longer-term perspective on what’s good for our well-being can make us happier — and create the conditions for greater freedom arising. The most important kind of freedom is freedom from suffering, not the freedom to do whatever we want (which isn’t possible anyway).

We need to keep our attention on our ability to choose, to choose wisely, and to observe that choice is simply happening, so that we can lose the false view that we have a self that chooses.

Forget “free will.” It’s irrelevant because it’s an illusion. It’s not necessary.

We don’t have free will, but we have all we need in order to become free from suffering. And that’s the crucial thing.

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Why you don’t have free will (and why that doesn’t matter)

image of robot, lacking free will

Free will is “the unimpeded capacity to choose between different possible courses of action.” We tend to believe that everyone has free will all the time, except under certain exceptional conditions, such as being hypnotized, or having a mental illness. I’m going to argue, however, that we don’t have free will, and that this doesn’t matter, because free will is not a Buddhist concept.

Free will is an important concept to us. Moral philosophers, religious teachers, and politicians have pointed to it as essential for personal morality as well as the flourishing of civilization. For example, Kant said “a free will and a will under moral laws is one and the same” and that if “freedom of the will is presupposed, morality together with its principle follows from it.” And Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, that American values are “rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”

The opposite of free will is determinism, which means that we’re wholly conditioned and aren’t responsible for our actions, even if we think we are. Determinism is a bit of a scary concept.

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We believe that if we don’t have free will, life is deterministic. And if that’s the case, we’re less than fully human. If life is deterministic we’re not able to take responsibility for our lives, but are living in a purely conditioned way, like robots.

Problems with the concept of free will

The problem is that the concept of free will doesn’t seem to match up with how things actually are. For example, the American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet did an experiment a long time ago. He asked people to perform a certain action, like pressing a button, at random times of their own choosing. The important thing was that they were to do this action as soon as they thought of it.

Libet used EEG to monitor subjects’ brains as they did this experiment and found that there was a burst of activity initiating the pressing of the button. This took place something like three tenths of a second before the participants had their first awareness of any conscious will to act.

So that’s a challenge for the idea of free will, because free will is the experience of choosing. But what Libet saw was that something that was not experienced consciously was pushing people to make a choice. It’s a bit like asking someone to jump into a swimming pool at a random time, but behind them some hidden person is actually pushing them in. What seems to happen is that just after the person has been pushed, they think, “OK, I’ve just decided to jump.”

As observers to this event, we can see that the person who thinks they decided to jump didn’t actually jump. They were pushed. Which means that they only thought they decided to leap. Which means that they only thought they had free will.

Another more recent experiment, using more sophisticated MRI equipment, asked people to perform an action with either their right or left hand. In this case it was possible to see activity taking place a full five to six seconds before the action was taken. This activity allowed the scientists to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, which decision would be taken. So that’s even more challenging.

You might want to imagine the decision-making process as being like a whole line of hidden people behind the person by the pool. There’s a whole chain of shoves, with someone at the back of the line creating a domino effect, until eventually the person standing at the edge falls into the pool, saying, “OK, I just decided to jump in!”

This doesn’t leave much room for the conventional understanding of free will, which involves conscious choice. And since free will is seen as crucial to morality, this is very jarring.

Why the free will concept is so cherished

I gather that the concept of free will arose as part of Christian thinking. In that model, God put us on earth, and will ultimately judge us based on what we do here. For example we’ll be judged  based on whether we accept or reject the existence of God, and on whether we follow his will.

Imagine a God demanding that we make certain decisions and punishing us (for eternity) for failing to do so. And imagine that he’d created us without free will. Such a model would be cruel and arbitrary.

Anyone believing that God wants us to make choices pretty much has to believe in free will.

Free will is not a Buddhist concept

Now, Buddhism doesn’t talk about free will.

So what does Buddhism talk about? Well, Buddhism’s certainly not deterministic. The essence of Buddhist practice is that we are able to make choices. For example, the very first chapter of the Dhammapada, a very influential Buddhist text, is called the twin verses, or “The Pairs,” because most of the verses are, as you’d expect, in pairs. Each pair presents a choice: Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy. Buddhism’s entire ethical system revolves around making choices between what is unskillful (what causes suffering), and what is skillful (what brings freedom from suffering).

Aren’t the ability to choose and free will the same thing? Well, no. The freedom to chose is not the same as “free will.”

Buddhism talks about conditionality. Everything arises in dependence upon something else. What arises is dependent on what existed just before. Choices arise dependent on what existed at the time of choosing. And so our choosing is never unconstrained. If “will” exists, it can never be entirely free.

The Buddha pointed out that it doesn’t work to say, “Let my consciousness be thus” and expect that to happen. You can certainly have that thought — for example, “I choose to be happy right now, and to stay that way for the rest of my life” — but it won’t work. Being happy forever is not an option available to you, because your mind is conditioned, and the conditions affecting your happiness can never be entirely under your control.

You might be able to make choices that affect your well-being in a positive way, but you’re always choosing from a limited menu. You can’t meaningfully decide to be happy, but you can make choices that nudge your mind in the direction of happiness. You can choose to do things that leave you feeling less unhappy, or maybe even just a little happier. You might, for example, choose to drop a hateful thought, or choose to relax your body, or you might choose to cultivate a loving thought. These things all make a difference. But the menu might not, at any given time, even include the option, “be happy.”

This clearly isn’t teaching determinism. It’s saying that although we can choose, we can only choose from a limited menu. Free will is not a Buddhist concept.

Having chosen, we change the conditions that are present for the next choices we make. That’s important, as we’ll see in a moment.

We have a limited capacity to choose

Often, it’s not just that we don’t have many options to choose from, but that sometimes it’s hard even to make a choice. We might not recognize that we’re able to drop one thought, to relax the body, or to cultivate another thought. At certain times we might lack mindfulness and not even realize that options are available. At those times we really are like automata.

To make a choice requires mindfulness. Choosing requires that we stand back from our own mind and see the choices available to us.

Mindfulness might allow us to recognize, for example, that we’re acting out of anger, and to see that the possibility of being kind or patient is also open to us. And if we see that those options exist, and that they have different outcomes — one that brings more conflict and misery, and another that brings  more peace and happiness — maybe we can make that choice.

But sometimes we’re not mindful. Our conditioning can be so strong, and our emotions so powerful, that we aren’t able to stand back. We’re just swept along by a tide of emotion. The conditions that allow us to choose just aren’t there.

Wiggle room

When we are mindful, it’s a very precious thing. It’s then that we have choice. We can choose not to do things that will make us and others unhappy in the long-term, and we can choose to do things that are for the long-term happiness and well-being of ourselves and others.

If we keep making these kinds of choices, we change the pathways in our brains, which creates long-term changes in how we act. We become kinder and less reactive, for example. This spiritual work is the real meaning of the word “karma,” which in fact simply means “work” or “action.” Karma is action that changes who we are, for better or for worse.

Mindfulness gives us some wiggle-room amongst all the constraints of conditioning that hem us in and restrict our freedom. And by exercising mindfulness and reducing our reactivity we’re loosening those constraints. We’re using our wiggle-room to create more wiggle-room.

Choosing is never conscious

Libet showed that we only think we make conscious choices. Choices are made, or they begin to be made, up to five or six seconds before we are consciously aware of them.

There’s a part of our mind that, when decisions (say, to jump in the pool) erupt into conscious awareness, immediately says, “I decided to do that.” I call this part of the mind “the plagiarist” because it’s trying to take the credit for things it didn’t do. The plagiarist’s voice is what we take to be the voice of the self. We’ve been hearing that voice our whole lives, and we automatically believe it. This is the reason we believe that decisions that are made unconsciously are actually conscious decisions. And this is why we believe we have a self that is consciously making choices.

That decisions happen unconsciously is not a problem for Buddhism. In fact it’s something that Buddhism is happy to accept. Indeed, tecognizing that the plagiarist is deluded, and that there is no “self” making decisions is a key insight in Buddhist practice.

As long as choice happens, it doesn’t matter that decisions start unconsciously, long before they erupt into conscious awareness. As I’ve said, that’s how all decisions happen.

And it doesn’t matter that our decision-making is conditioned and not entirely free. That’s just how things are. Everything is conditioned.

“The Pairs”

The important thing is that the decisions that are made take into account more and more our long-term happiness and well-being. That is, it’s important that wise decisions happen — decisions that widen the degree of wiggle-room we have for making further wise decisions.

So to come back to very ordinary experiences — we keep catching ourselves (as long as mindfulness is present) reacting with states such as anger and anxiety. We keep recognizing that those ways of being create pain. We keep letting go of angry and anxious ways of thinking and behaving, and instead seek love and calmness. And we keep recognizing that the result of doing this is that we become happier.

Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy.

And in seeing the two sets of consequences available to us — painful or pleasant — we give mindfulness an incentive to make an appearance.

Keep doing this over and over again, and we become more free, and happier.

But what’s happening isn’t the result of decisions being consciously made. Our belief that decisions are consciously made is a delusion. And what’s happening is not “a self” taking action. Not only is there no free will, but there’s no self to have free will.

Instead choices are making themselves. And if this happens with the awareness, “Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy,” then we find that, more and more, skillful actions result.

The plagiarist is very convincing, though. It’s not easy to see through its lies. And again, that doesn’t matter. At first all we want to happen is that we make choices that liberate. Let go of anger, and cultivate love, and you’ll be happier and freer to make further skillful choices in the future. If the plagiarist keeps saying, “I did that,” then that’s a separate problem we can tackle later. (In fact, right now that probably doesn’t even seem like a problem.)

For now, just keep valuing mindfulness and the freedom to choose that it affords us.

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Mindfulness: freedom from, freedom to

Photo by Justin Luebke on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/BkkVcWUgwEk
Mindfulness is everywhere these days, but it’s often poorly defined. To me its central and defining characteristic is self-observation. When we’re unmindful, there’s no self-observation going on. The lights are on, but nobody’s home.

Thoughts, feelings, speech, and actions are all functioning, but there’s no inner observer, and so there’s no evaluation going on. Without evaluation there’s no mechanism for recognizing that certain thoughts etc. are causing us or others suffering. And so we’re really nothing more than a complex bundle of instincts and habits. Those instincts and habits can do amazing things, like drive a car (ever “woken up” to find you’ve driven somewhere and have no recollection of the journey?) or read a book (I often would find that I’d read several pages of a bedtime story to my kids and not paid attention to a single word I’d said.

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The key thing is our suffering. Or, to put it another way, the quality of our experience. With no observation, there’s nothing to stop us from making ourselves anything from mildly disgruntled to extremely unhappy.

When self-observation is taking place, we notice the effects of particular thoughts, words, actions, and so on. And so we’re able to make adjustments. We might notice that a certain train of thought is causing us to feel anxious or depressed or angry. We might realize that the train of thought isn’t even true. And we might decide to let go of it.

Mindfulness gives us two kinds of freedom. It gives us freedom from, and freedom to.

By “freedom from” I mean freeing ourselves from the tyranny of habit and instinct, and therefore a cultivating a growing freedom from the suffering that these unmindful behaviors cause. When we’re mindful, these habits and instincts are still there, of course. They don’t magically vanish. But when we’re mindful they’re less likely to control our minds, and instead are just thoughts and desires that we observe and that we may decide not to act on.

That’s radical in itself, because it profoundly changes the course of our being. But we also discover that we have not just freedom from unmindful ways of being, but the freedom to bring about different ways of being. We have the freedom to choose. We can choose to be kinder, for example. If we just remember that being kind is a possibility, we’re more likely to be kind. If we remember what it’s like to feel and act in a kind way, then those qualities are more likely to arise. If we’re free from angry thoughts we are also free to think in ways that are more empathetic and loving.

And what is true for being kinder is true for being patient, curious, courageous, accepting, appreciative, reflective, and for practicing other skillful qualities. With mindfulness we’re free to choose to be different.

Mindfulness gives us the freedom to stop causing ourselves and others suffering through unmindful habits, and to instead cultivate skillful habits that help to improve the quality of our own lives and that also impact other people in positive ways. It’s both freedom from and freedom to.

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Happiness is not a choice

Coffee art

The saying that “happiness is a choice” is extremely common. There’s a book by that title, as well as a gazillion articles. They all say that you can choose to be happy.

It’s not true. Happiness is not a choice.

Or at least it’s not strictly true that happiness is a choice. There’s a grain of truth here; we can influence our happiness. But happiness is a feeling, and we can’t directly choose our feelings.

What is true is that happiness is the result of our choices.

We can choose actions that will bring long-term happiness. We can choose what we say. We can choose our attitudes. We can choose to have thoughts that increase our happiness.

You might be thinking, “So, tell me what these choices are, so I can go and make them and then be happy!” as if they were major life decisions, like choosing the right home or the right job. But it’s more fine-grained than that. It’s a case of looking at what we’re thinking, saying, and doing, and making choices about the nature of each of those actions. It’s a question of making moment-by-moment choices, not big, once-in-a-lifetime choices (although those can be important too).

We need to be aware of what we’re doing physically, and how that makes us feel. So, for example, when I’m chopping vegetables I often find that I’m clenching my jaw for some reason. When I’m working on the computer I often find that my breathing is a little tight. These things contribute to a general sense of emotional tension that inhibits my happiness. As soon as I relax my jaw or let my breathing go back to a normal pattern, my being moves more in the direction of happiness. Relaxing promotes happiness.

I’ve often recommended that people watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on how our posture influences how we feel. Stand or sit in an open and expansive way, and you’ll feel more confident. Confidence leads to happiness. Stand or sit in a hunched, defensive, closed way, and you’ll feel more fearful and unhappy. This is a great illustration of my point. We choose our actions, and those actions change our level of happiness. We don’t just simply “choose to be happy.” If you try to choose happiness without changing the conditions that are undermining your happiness, nothing much is going to change. You’ll probably just get depressed.

We’re always going to have thoughts arising that contribute to our unhappiness. When you make a mistake it’s natural to think, “Man, that was stupid!” You can make a choice not to buy into and believe such thoughts, however. When we buy into our thoughts we magnify them. We take “Man, that was stupid!” and elaborate and expand it into a story about how useless we are and how we’re never going to be good at anything. And that proliferation of thought makes us unhappy. Simply letting the thought “Man, that was stupid!” pass through the mind without engaging with it makes us happier. Encouraging a more realistic, honest, and skillful thought, like “It’s OK. We all make mistakes,” helps us to be more at ease with ourselves, and thus to be happier. We’re not choosing happiness. We’re choosing how we think, and that can lead to us being happier.

We can choose to pay attention to our feelings, and that will make us happier. When my attention is caught up in my thoughts, I sometimes lose touch with my feelings, and my experience becomes kind of cold and hard. But when I pay attention to my heart (an area of the body innervated by the emotionally important vagus nerve) I’m more emotionally open and sensitive. I feel more connected with myself and with others. That’s enriching, like a black and white movie suddenly turning into color.

We can choose how we speak. Connecting honestly and kindly with others builds up bonds that lead to happiness arising in the short term (saying kind things to others makes both them and us happy in that moment) and in the long term (having positive connections with others gives us support when times get hard, and make the good times better). Again, we’re choosing actions, not happiness. But those actions lead to happiness.

Happiness arises from a million momentary choices. This is why we need to cultivate mindfulness. Without the ability to monitor our actions moment by moment, the mind will habitually and automatically default to decisions that make us unhappy.

Feelings like happiness are, according to Buddhist teachings, not actions. They’re not things we do. They’re the results of actions. They’re the consequences of our actions. You can’t choose happiness. But if you want to be happier, you can make choices that allow happiness to happen.

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The book that changed my life

penguin dhammapada from the 1970's, translated by juan mascaro

In the late 1970’s, between finishing high school and going to university, I opened a small book of ancient verses, and my life changed forever.

I’d been interested in Buddhism for years, but my local library only had one book on the subject — a rather dated “Teach Yourself” guide to Zen Buddhism. I’d read the book, and found it both intriguing and baffling, but struggled to get a sense of what difference Buddhism would make to my life. And I was looking for something life-changing.

One early autumn day I accompanied my parents on a shopping trip to the nearest large town, which was the possessor of that rare and precious thing — a book shop. I’d inherited a love of reading from my father, and so the two of us went (more or less) one way while my mother went hers. And after a period of browsing, I happened across a slender black-spined volume: “The Dhammapada,” translated by Juan Mascaró. I can still see exactly where in the bookshop, on which shelf, and where on the shelf the book sat, as clearly as I can see the book now on the desk in front of me.

I’d heard of the Dhammapada, and knew it was an early Buddhist scripture. I knew it was the real deal — the teaching of the Buddha — as opposed to being merely about Buddhism. And sitting in the passenger seat of my parents’ car, waiting for my mother to return from her bargain-hunting, with my father beside me listening to the droning incantation of the days’ football results, my eager hands slipped the slim book from its brown paper bag, and skipping past the introduction I read the following words:

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows him as the wheel of the cart follows the beast that draws the cart.

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows him as his own shadow.

Despite the fact that these verses had a big effect on me, this is a terrible translation. Nevertheless, these clear and simple words were revelatory. We have choices. The key to happiness and suffering lies in the quality of our thoughts, words, and actions. Reading these verses, I knew I was a Buddhist.

Inherent in these few lines is everything we need to know about what it means to live a Buddhist life. We can find out for ourselves, through experience and observation, which thoughts, words, and actions lead to suffering and which to joy. These choices lie before us in every moment of our lives: the skilful or the unskilful; joy or sorrow. Which are you going to choose? In every moment you make choices that change your life.

Choose wisely.

PS. A better translation would be:

All experiences (dhammā) are preceded by mind (manopubbaṅgamā), having mind as their master (manoseṭṭhā) created by mind (manomayā). If someone speaks or acts with a corrupted mind, suffering follows them like the wheel the hoof of the ox.

All experiences (dhammā) are preceded by mind (manopubbaṅgamā), having mind as their master (manoseṭṭhā) created by mind (manomayā). If someone speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows them like a shadow that never leaves.

Since this is a bad translation, I suggest either Narada Thera‘s version (available free in various formats), or Gil Fronsdal’s. Buddharakkhita’s translation is good, and is available free on Access to Insight. Bhikkhu Sujato’s is excellent, and is available free on Sutta Central, along with other translations.

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Having a meditation toolkit

100 Day Meditation ChallengeOne of my online students wrote:

I find that when a dark thought or uncomfortable feeling comes up during meditation, my habitual reaction is to very quickly label it “thinking” and then return to my breath, which feels very much like I am suppressing my emotions and feelings.

And my reply was: This is a great thing to have learned about yourself. It seems that you innately know, with your inner wisdom, that this kind of suppression isn’t the way you want to live your life, and in fact with mindfulness we should be prepared to give our darker feelings room to breathe — or at least some of them.

That brings up the question of when we should simply let go of thoughts and the feelings/emotions that accompany them, and when we should give them space and take the time to sit with them. Sometimes one approach is appropriate, and sometimes it isn’t. How to decide? I’m not sure I can offer any clear-cut guidance on that. I think we need to use our inner wisdom to figure out what the most appropriate approach is. But I’ll have a go.

So I’d weigh up things like:

  • Is this thought just chatter? Like planning dinner, or thinking about our next Facebook status update? Can it simply wait? If so, let it go.
  • Is this thought destructive or unhelpful in some way? (For example, am I engaged in an angry rant, or busy telling myself how bad I am at something, or worrying?) In these cases I’d let go of the content of the thoughts (the storyline) but acknowledge any underlying feelings of hurt, fear, anxiety, etc., and give those my kindly attention.
  • Is there strong emotional baggage with this thought? Does it keep coming around again and again? If so, then again I’d let go of the thought but be attentive to the underlying feelings.
  • Is this a dark feeling, but not necessarily a destructive one? For example I consider grief and sadness to be aspects of love, rather than being “negative.” They’re what we experience when we love and have lost the object of our love. These are uncomfortable states, but not to be dismissed. We might find that here we don’t want to be too quick to dismiss even the stories. It’s not that we would engage is storytelling, but we may notice that the feeling arises from a story we’ve created (I should have been there at the end, I never said I loved him, etc.) It may be a great learning experience to understand how we’ve creating our feelings.
  • Is this a bright, positive, constructive emotional state, of say love, or joy? Are the thoughts we’re having contributing to that state? We might want to let those thoughts happen. After all, that’s what we do in lovingkindness practice; we deliberately engage with thinking that gives rise to love, kindness, appreciation, and compassion. We often think of thoughts as being “distractions” but they’re only distractions when they distract us! Sometimes they are guides leading us toward a deeper and more meaningful way of being.

If this seems like a lot of factors to consider, then you’re probably right. It can take us time to build up a model of how to act in various circumstances, and to keep tweaking that model as it encounters limitations. That’s the “wisdom” I mentioned earlier. Eventually these kinds of evaluations become second nature.

It’s good to be aware that there is a range of choices available to us. We should feel we have a toolkit of choices available to us, and develop a sense — through practice — of which seems most appropriate at any given time. And we should have the freedom to switch approaches if the one we’ve initially chosen is clearly not working. It’s fine to decide to just sit with an uncomfortable emotion. It’s fine to decide to do something about it. But if we aren’t in a position where we can take one of the other approach, we don’t have freedom.

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How “letting go” helps us get things done

Woman in a colorful dress, caught in mid-jump, looking like she's hovering restfully over the ocean

Joe, a student in my online class, was worried that meditation would hurt his career. He works in a very competitive business where everyone is single-mindedly pushing and driving hard all the time. The whole idea of “letting go” seemed absurd in that context. But at the same time his stress and anxiety levels were sky high. He knew this wasn’t a sustainable way to live.

Yes it’s true that in meditation, we’re told to drop everything and let go. But that doesn’t mean becoming passive and ineffectual. There’s more to this instruction than meets the eye.

There’s an image that comes to mind for me to illustrate what letting go is like. Imagine we’re kayaking down a river. One way we could do it is to paddle like hell, trying to force our way around, fighting the currents, insisting that the kayak go exactly where I want it to go. And doing it how I want to do it.

Or, we could survey the terrain and current before jumping in. Then we ride the current and let it take us most of the way to where we want to go. We steer to make sure we don’t get dashed against rocks or end up heading down the wrong side of the river. We could also use a calmer bend in the river to stop and look ahead to plan our next stretch. We can steer our course without using nearly as much effort this way, adjusting our path as we go along.

Life can be the same way. We don’t have make all the effort ourselves to make things happen from beginning to end. If we expand our view beyond our self-absorbed need to reach our goal, there’s a whole universe of structures and currents out there that can help us.

See also:

At work for example, if we find people who have common goals and interests as we do, our combined energies can often accomplish more than the sum of us individually could. Involving our boss in our plans sometimes results in him clearing a path in front of us, getting us resources, additional help, budgets, etc. Tagging onto existing workflows and procedures means we don’t have to create everything ourselves.

Letting go can help us in our inner world, too. Have you noticed how creative ideas often pop up when you’re taking a shower or walking the dog? In other words, when you’re not really trying? Recent neuroscientific research suggests that making less effort is what helps. When we become effortful in problem solving, it generally means we’re pushing our way through our old, familiar ways of doing things. And often, those are exactly the ways that haven’t worked, but we keep pounding at them anyway. When we keep repeating the same thing over and over, we become blind to other possibilities. So to be “not effortful” means to inhibit the thoughts that don’t work in order to leave room for something else to emerge.

Not being effortful also means your mind is quieter and more conducive to new ideas. A creative thought is one that brings up a long-forgotten memory or combines some of them in a new way. Neurologically speaking, they involve connections between far fewer neurons than your front-of-mind thoughts. So the signals they emit are much weaker, and generally get drowned out by your much louder, effortful thoughts. To give those quieter thoughts a fighting chance to be noticed, it helps to have a quiet mind. One that has “let go” of jangly discursive thinking.

So letting go doesn’t mean letting go of everything — just the stuff that gets in our way. In this context, it means letting go of our obsessive focus on results, and our inflexible views of how to get there. It doesn’t mean dropping all thoughts about the future, but finding a more open and flexible relationship with them.

The larger perspective of the teaching on “letting go” is an acknowledgment that I am a part of a highly interconnected world. Every time I get hyper-focused on my own little view of the world, I am being blind to the way things really are. To think that I can do things exclusively my way is to be foolish and ignorant. And it’s bound to get me into trouble, or at least cause me a lot of stress.

But at the same time, I’m not a helpless victim either. I am the agent of my own free will, and can use it to steer my path through life. With mindfulness, we can skillfully navigate our way through all these forces to get to a better outcome. And it’s not just me that benefits — because everything I do ultimately benefits everyone.

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Sampajañña: unraveling lifelong habits with mindfulness

It’s discouraging, isn’t it, to watch ourselves fall repeatedly into our same old habitual traps. We try to practice mindfulness, but it can be frustrating. Do you ever have days where you’re so caught up that you realize only at night, despite your best intentions, that you weren’t mindful for even one moment?

And it’s especially hard when we’re face to face with lifelong tendencies that resist change in a big way.

But don’t lose heart. It doesn’t mean you’re no good at this. After all, you NOTICED that you weren’t being mindful. That noticing is a positive event. Even though it happened after the fact, you observed something you probably weren’t aware of before. This is a good thing! This is progress. And it’s this emerging awareness that’s going to pull you through.

There’s an aspect of mindfulness from the traditional scriptures that applies here. It’s sampajañña, which is Pali for something like mindfulness of purpose. Sampajañña means always keeping our sights on where we want to go, our intentions. It introduces the dimension of time to mindfulness.

Mindfulness isn’t only about seeing what’s happening now. It’s also about seeing cause and effect. Like seeing how something we did in the past created the situation we’re in now. We see the results of our mistakes, and make a resolve to start doing things differently. We also see our successes, and think of how we might build on them. It’s about seeing in a clear-headed way the results of our choices. And also seeing that we HAVE choices, and starting to take responsibility for ourselves.

See also:

We look at these things not as a way to beat ourselves up, but to keep our sights on where we want to go. We all have some image of how we’d like to be – whether it’s more confident, peaceful, kind, whatever. Maybe today, right now, we didn’t do things the way we would have liked. When we see how we don’t measure up, applying sampajañña means not giving up on ourselves. We may have fallen short today, but we still have our intentions. We still keep our eyes on the prize. We keep moving ahead.

And what if we feel stuck and clueless about what to do? For starters, we could stop taking our self-doubting thoughts so seriously. They are just thoughts, after all. They’re not doing anything to help us move forward, are they?

We could also try doing SOMETHING, and see what happens — as an experiment. It’s more fodder for cause-and-effect learning. Sometimes when we’re lost, it helps just to walk around the bend to get a different view – maybe it leads to a clearing that helps us to see further ahead.

Or we might simply stay still for while, not thrash about so much – mentally, emotionally, or actively. It’s analogous to when you’re in water over your head. Thrashing about can make you sink, but if you lie still you’ll float easily on the surface. It’s a similar idea here. Sometimes it’s our own overreacting that creates problems for ourselves. Can we let go of our anxiety and fears, and just be? And allow some clarity to settle in on its own?

So mindfulness isn’t something to achieve. It’s not about “getting it right” and reaching for some ideal state of mental clarity. I think for most of us, that’s a near impossible standard. I think mindfulness, especially in the context of sampajañña, simply means being there for ourselves over the long haul, and never giving up on ourselves. It’s an attitude or an approach to life, not an endpoint.

What ultimately help us unravel our lifelong habits is doing the best we can, wherever we are now. And accepting that the pace of change is often beyond our control. The time and circumstances might not be ripe yet. But we can trust that everything we’re doing now is laying the groundwork for the future. We can still be an active participant in our lives. We can still show up for ourselves. And isn’t that really what’s going to get us through?

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Feeding the wolf of love

A wolf, reflected as a negative image

I once heard a Native American teaching story in which an elder, a grandmother, was asked what she had done to become so happy, so wise, so loved and respected. She replied: “It’s because I know that there are two wolves in my heart, a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. And I know that everything depends on which one I feed each day.”

This story always gives me the shivers when I think of it. Who among us does not have both a wolf of love and a wolf of hate in their heart?

I know I do, including the wolf of hate, which shows up in small ways as well as large ones, such when I get judgmental, irritable, pushy, or argumentative. Even if it’s only inside my own mind – and sometimes it definitely leaks out.

We’ve got these two wolves because we evolved them, because both wolves were needed to keep our ancestors alive.

Until just 10,000 years ago, for millions of years primates, hominids, and early humans lived in hunter-gatherer groups that bred mainly within the band while competing intensely with other bands for scarce resources. Therefore, genes got passed on that promoted better cooperation inside a band and better aggression between bands. The wolf of love and the wolf of hate are stitched into human DNA.

Bands kept their distance from each other, and when they met, they often fought. For example, researchers have found that about 12-15% of hunter-gatherer men died in conflicts between bands – compared to “just” the 1% of men who died in the many bloody wars of the 20th century.

So it’s natural to fear the stranger – who, back in the Stone Age with no police around, was often a lethal threat. The related impulse to dehumanize and attack “them” also worked well (in terms of passing on genes) for millions of years.

Today, you can observe the wolf of hate all around us, in acts of thought, word, and deed. For example, as soon as we see others as “not my tribe,” whether it’s at home or work or on the evening news, the wolf of hate lifts its head and looks around for danger. And then if we feel at all threatened or mistreated or desperate, the wolf of hate jumps up and looks for someone to howl at or bite.

While the wolf of hate was vital back in the Serengeti, today it breeds alienation and anger, ulcers and heart disease, and conflicts with others at home and work.

And at a larger scale, with 7 billion people crowded together on this planet – when a flu mutation in Hong Kong can become a worldwide epidemic, when bank problems in Greece roil the global economy, when carbon emissions in one country heat up the whole world – when we fear or dehumanize or attack “them,” it usually comes back to harm “us.”

How do we feed the wolf?

So what are we going to do?

We can’t kill the wolf of hate because hating the wolf of hate just feeds it. Instead, we need to control this wolf, and channel its fire into healthy forms of protection and assertiveness. And we need to stop feeding it with fear and anger.

Meanwhile, we need to feed the wolf of love. This will make us stronger inside, more patient, and less resentful, annoyed, or aggressive. We’ll stay out of needless conflicts, treat people better, and be less of a threat to others. Then we’ll also be in a stronger position to get treated better by them.

There are lots of ways to feed the wolf of love.

We can feed it by taking in the good of everyday experiences of feeling seen, appreciated, cared about, even cherished and loved.

We can feed the wolf of love by practicing compassion for ourselves and others, and by letting these experiences of compassion sink into our heart.

We can feed the wolf of love by recognizing the good in other people – and then by taking in the experience of the goodness in others.

Similarly, we can feed the wolf of love by sensing the goodness inside our own heart, and by letting that sense of truly being a good person – not a perfect person, but a good person – also sink in.

Last, we can feed the wolf of love by seeing the good in the world, and the good in the future that we can make together – in the face of so many messages these days that are dark and despairing.

We feed the wolf of love, in other words, with heart and with hope. We feed this wolf by sustaining our sense of what’s good in other people, what’s good in ourselves, what’s already good in our world, and what could be even better in a world we can build together.

We need to stay strong to do this, to hold on to what we know to be true in spite of the brain’s tendency to focus on threats and losses, and in spite of the age-old manipulations of various groups that play on fear and anger – that feed the wolf of hate – to gain or hold onto wealth and power.

So let’s stay strong, and hold on to the good that exists all around us and inside us.

Let’s stay strong, and hold onto the good that can be, that we can nourish and build in this world.

Let’s stay strong, and hold onto each other.

Let’s stay strong enough to take in the good that feeds the wolf of love each day.

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